Once Boxing Day’s matches have passed, football fans’ thoughts inevitably turn next to the FA Cup third round – and the tantalising thought that, come 5pm on the first Saturday in January, an unheralded lower-league player will deliver the David-esque killer blow which fells a Premier League giant.
Journalists and TV commentators scour the fixtures for potential working class heroes – but they won’t find any plasterers, brickies or sparks left in the Cup this year. Although four non-league sides remain in the competition, all of them are full-time outfits, so the chances of a postie dumping out former Champions League semi-finalists (as Histon’s Matt Langston did in 2008) are, like Aston Villa’s most regular score, nil.
That said, there is one tie which catches the imagination, as Villa’s near-neighbours Tamworth travel to Everton. Let’s first trot out a well-worn stat once more – it is now 23 years since a non-league side beat a top flight team in the FA Cup, as every fan of Sutton United and Coventry City knows all too well (even Sutton fans are bored of being asked by opposition fans the same question, ‘Didn’t you beat Coventry once?’).
In that time, a number of ‘plucky non-leaguers’ have tried to humble the ‘pampered millionaires’ – Exeter and Burton Albion both secured goalless draws with Manchester United but succumbed in replays, while Havant and Waterlooville twice took the lead at Liverpool before going out 5-2.
So can the Lambs go one step further than the Hawks on Merseyside? Unlikely. While Everton may constantly plead poverty, and aren’t the top four-botherers they once were, they still have a first team packed with players who – on their day – can produce moments of magic. Injuries have decimated their squad - with classy centre-back Phil Jagielka the latest on the physio’s table – but to avoid being taken to the slaughter (or silenced, depending on which tabloid you read), the Lambs are likely to still have to contend with the likes of Louis Saha, Landon Donovan, Tim Cahill and the fit-again Marouane Fellaini. If the luck of the draw had given Tamworth a home tie, there would be a sniff of an upset, but home advantage alone should ensure the Toffees don’t come unstuck (who writes this stuff?).
Salisbury City are into the third round for the first time in their history and were rewarded with a visit to Sheffield United. In 2006-07, the Whites took then-League One side Nottingham Forest to a replay – but the Blades aren’t likely to be as charitable on their own patch. Darrell Clarke, player-manager of the Blue Square Bet South side, will however be keen to put one over on United boss Danny Wilson, who released him when they were at Hartlepool United together.
The town of Fleetwood is getting very excited as we speak about being given a crack at neighbours Blackpool. But the feeling isn’t mutual, with Tangerines chairman Karl Oyston claiming he won’t even go to the game. Perhaps he fears his side will be taken to the cleaners by the brilliantly-monikered Cod Army, who sit second in the Blue Square Bet Premier and surely have the best chance of progressing of the four non-league sides. Geographically they are separated by nine miles, in league status the gap is 67 places, but on the day I can see this being close. Fleetwood will be up for it, Blackpool will be nervous – why on earth was this not chosen as a live TV game? One negative for Fleetwood is that striker Richard Brodie – who hit the bar during Crawley’s fifth round visit to Old Trafford last season – will be suspended.
Wrexham, who are two points clear of Fleetwood at the top of the Blue Square Bet Premier, are also in with a chance at Championship side Brighton. On paper, this has ‘home win’ written all over it. But Wrexham’s form and general feeling of togetherness after a summer of turmoil, plus Brighton’s lengthy injury list and likely indifference towards a cup run, means the Dragons could cause a shock on their trip to the south coast.
Away from the fixtures involving non-league sides, I can see shocks at St. Andrews, where Birmingham could topple rivals Wolves, Oakwell, where Barnsley may want it more than Swansea, the Broadfield Stadium, with Crawley beating Bristol City, and the County Ground, where Paolo Di Canio’s League Two Swindon may make life even more uncomfortable for Roberto Martinez’s Wigan.
If that all comes to fruition, it’ll be one heck of a weekend of cup football – and if Tamworth make history,their fans ought to be prepared for 20 years of ‘Didn’t you once beat Everton?’.